Libraries – “isn’t it all on the Internet?” NO!

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The reaction to the publication of the Sieghart Report highlighted a number of important issues about public libraries, but one above all others – politicians clearly have absolutely no idea at all what librarians do and what libraries are for.
Sadly there still exists the antiquated and naive view that libraries are only required for people who want to borrow a book. This is utter nonsense and deserves to be challenged. That is as narrow a view as suggesting that trains are only for delivering people to work.
So, for all of those people who still haven’t bothered to find out what libraries and librarians actually do, let’s have a closer look at that.

Let’s look at a day in our imaginary library. Our imagined library is in a rural community of around 7000 people, mainly young families and older people. The community is thirty miles from the nearest big city and has an erratic train link and a limited bus service. There is no community centre and no Citizens Advice Bureau. The council offices are out of town, as is the hospital and minor injuries clinic, and other local provisions have been cut. Even though this is an imagined community it is one that is mirrored all over the country.

One of the things that our imaginary town does have, is a library. Built with philanthropic money at the turn of the 20th Century it is in the market square, right in the middle of the town in a place designed to be accessible for all. The people of our community rely on the library for many things.
A young mother needs helps filling in the forms to apply for school for her children because she has no one at home to help her. She goes to the library and the librarian helps her to find the forms online and fill them in so that her child can go to school.

A couple need help finding out what services or help is available for their elderly parents. They go to the library and the librarian gives them information about books on wheels, local care provision and what benefits they might apply for.

An elderly person living alone faces another winter in isolation. She goes to the library and the librarian helps her to apply for winter fuel allowance online, and then she sorts out a volunteer to pop around with books and shopping once a week.

A young couple have moved into the area and do not know anyone. They join the library and the librarian tells them all about local childcare, local clubs and facilities. They borrow books and leaflets about the area and even join local reading groups.

A man is told by his doctor that his vision is failing. He talks to his librarian and she helps him to register online for services for visual impairment and, twice a week, she helps him to choose audio books by reading the boxes out to him. She even saves audio books for him that she knows he will like and she knows which ones he has already had.

What else are you looking for? List of local doctors and dentists? Go to the library and ask the librarian. Information about local planning applications? Go to the library and ask the librarian. Can’t work out how to use your computer? Go to the library and ask the librarian. Stuck at home with small children and need some time-out? Go to the library and ask the librarian. Lonely, depressed, isolated? Go to the library and talk to the librarian (or just be somewhere safe and warm.) Need some help with your studies and don’t have the support or technology at home? Go to the library and ask the librarian……
Getting the idea?

We need to shake off the idea that all libraries are fit for is to borrow a book. Right from their inception that is not what libraries were for – they were for educating the people and providing information for those who would not have otherwise had access to it. I’m guessing that not all of the political parties are that keen on providing information to the masses and educating adults for free, because I can’t think of any other reason why they would not be supporting libraries and the professionals who run them.

This is not an old fashioned or twee idea of protecting an antiquated institution, but rather a 21st century idea to ensure that each and every community has access to the information it needs. Look at what we’ve done in our imagined community and see the bigger picture. The mother now has a place for her child in school, thus saving money and time for local authorities and for the school board. The couple have found support for their elderly parents and this means that they are able to stay in their home for a while longer thus saving the social services tens of thousands of pounds. The virtually housebound elderly lady now has visitors and is less isolated and has a winter fuel payment and is less likely to succumb to illness associated with age and cold. The young couple feel more engaged in their community and are more likely to contribute to it and to stay within it. The visually impaired man is now able to function in his community again and is less likely to have to rely on expensive care services.

Most of these people have also borrowed books (or audio books, or dvds, or cds, or leaflets….) but that’s not why they went there in the first place. They went there because they needed answers to questions that they did not know how to ask. The snobby response to this would be “they can look it up on the internet can’t they?” Can they? What if you live in a rural community where you don’t have internet access or phone signal? What if you don’t know exactly what question to ask? What if you do ask the internet, and it gives you a million hits and you don’t know which one to trust?

This is what libraries are for, and what professional librarians are for. It is monumentally short-sighted to cut away one of the most important services in a community without ever having a clear picture of what they do in the first place, but that is exactly what is happening all over the country. Librarians are being replaced with inexperienced volunteers who, with the best will in the world, will never be able to provide the service that a trained professional can. Libraries are either being closed or their hours are cut so that they are only able to provide an erratic and unreliable service. Schools have little or no library provision and  more often than not there is no trained professional to support their reading progression. The areas worst hit seem to be the ones that need the library the most; poor areas and ones in rural communities. The Sieghart Report has some valuable ideas in it but none of this will mean anything if the various political parties do not act upon it. Join the campaign for libraries and make sure that you and your family have access to something that will ultimately give you, and your entire community, a better standard of living – a library with a librarian. 

A full list of current (2104/2015) public library legislation is available here

For other ideas about campaigning and advocacy, you should also see Speak Up For Libraries. and follow @speakup4libs Many other counties also have powerfully active library campaigns, search twitter and social media for their details and please feel free to share your details in the comments below (note – all comments are moderated and so will not immediately appear)

 Article written by Dawn Finch 

Vice President CILIP

(@dawnafinch) author and children’s library and literacy consultant.

Footnote – this article is in an updated form, first posted April 2015

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Librarians – let’s get out there!

This is a transcript of the closing speech for the joint CILIP Ireland / LAI conference in Belfast in April 2015.

Libraries – advocate and motivate!

Many of us work in isolation and conferences like this are our only chance to meet the other people who work within our service. We are unlike any other industry in that we largely work alone or in very small groups. To be able to attend extraordinary events like this not only keeps us up to date with what is new and current in our industry, but it allows us to discover that we are not alone in our trials and our adversities.

Libraries have never been at greater risk. Never. I have worked in libraries for over 27 years – through several restructures and reevaluations and reshuffles and several other things that regardless of the label hung on it meant job losses and a deterioration of the service available. This apparently was not enough and the erosion of the service has continued and has led us to this place where we are now. Thanks to the Seighart report we are now matched with railways and we are experiencing our Beeching moment. Actually, I think that this is an understatement. After Beeching it was still possible to catch a train, and the system is still recovering, but it is recovering. The same will not be said of libraries. When we lose our libraries they will be lost forever. This will be a single track line and there will be no recovering. No philanthropists will step in and rebuild. Losing our libraries will be an irreversible process.
So what can we do?

Of course our biggest problem is with governments and their inability to take the time to understand what libraries and librarians do and to find out exactly how important they are. This is largely because the people in power have a limited experience of libraries that is essentially an oak panelled silent room in their old prep-school or a silent brandy-fuelled room at the club reeking of aged and over-stuffed old-boys and cracked leather armchairs. They feel that it is fine to protect that sort of library, but do the poor and huddled masses really deserve access to that?

One of the most crucial outward problems facing libraries today partially rests in the perception of libraries. There still exists a perception that libraries are a middle-class remnant of a stuffy past that has no place in the 21st century. If we step outside into the streets and ask people to describe what a library is there is a very good chance that people will still describe this….

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Is this not what a library looks like?

Why do we bristle at this statement – because we know it to be false. We know that when people think of libraries they really should be thinking of spaces like this.

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This is the plan for the new National Library of Kazakhstan and it is a far better illustration of what we know a modern library looks like. We have dozens of examples of such modern community hubs and we know that our libraries are essential and lively 21st century spaces that serve our communities (be they schools, universities or academic establishments) We know that our communities would be significantly less successful without our presence. We know this because we are in these libraries every day and we are able to track their impact.
How do others know? What are we doing to ensure that the wider community is aware of the importance and impact of libraries?

So often all that the non-library using public see of libraries is when another campaign starts. Campaigns do work, especially noisy ones, but the most effective campaigns are ones that bring to bear the power of hearts and minds. We can’t expect people who have never used a library to understand what a librarian does or what a library can do for them – we have to show them. We have to make our voices heard in a way that is positive and affirming.

So how can we do this?
Use your users. One of the problems that we have with library campaigns is that it is often perceived as people just trying to protect their jobs – jobs that people do not understand or value. We need to better demonstrate what we mean to the people who use our libraries. Use your users to write about about what the library means to them, not what it means to you. A perfect example of this is the recent blog post at CILIP about prison libraries.

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Ex-prisoner Jonathan Robinson – a man who really understands how vital libraries and librarians are to the process of rehabilitation.

How much more effective is it to hear the voices of people whose lives have been changed for the better by the support of the library and the librarian? We actually have no shortage of support, but it is directing that support to the right people that can make a difference. Find out who has the most potential impact in your field or your county and get them on your side. Use the famous, use writers, broadcasters, sports personalities, local youth workers, schools, anyone who can be useful to get the message to a wider and more responsive audience.

Make sure that you are concentrating on the impact of the professional. Many library campaigns concentrate on the impact of the service, and not those delivering it. Talking about the professional is our job and we should be doing it as effectively as the campaigners are doing with the service. When you talk about digital literacy, make sure that you talk about the librarian that will deliver this service. It is not enough to save a library to have it staffed with volunteers, no matter how well meaning they are – this is not a sustainable system. Talk about the librarians and show why they are important.

Stay positive. As library campaigners it is vital that we stay positive about the benefits and usefulness of a well-run library. As a life-long campaigner for change I know that the angrier the campaign, the less people listen. These are stressful financial times for everyone, and so people need to feel something on an emotional level to stand by you and make a difference. Yank those heartstrings with positive tales and case histories and show the benefit and wider value of your library to its users.

Be seen! Be seen as an individual, not just as a faceless organisation. This is not just about a building with books in. A building with books in is not a library – no matter what the government would have people believe. You cannot run a library with volunteers – that is just a book lending service and that’s a completely different thing to a real library service. Make sure that people can see you and, in turn, that they understand what you do.
Blog, tweet, facebook, speak, get out there! Join with others and support each other. Conferences are the perfect opportunity to network and to show support for others. Take every opportunity to forge new links and new bonds with anyone who does what you do.
Show people what we do – show them that we are not just sitting there reading and waiting for a book to stamp out. Show people what you do in your service point and how you do it.

So what do we do? Who are we? Why do people deserve a real librarian and not a volunteer? This slide explains exactly what we do and why we are so essential to supporting our communities.

Qualified professionals infographicOne of the key elements of the campaign to erase the library service relies in part on all of us in the profession having divisions. It relies on academic libraries not supporting school libraries, public libraries not supporting health libraries, legal libraries not supporting prison libraries. We need to unite to ensure that we are providing an intermeshed and overlapping service – one access point effortlessly linking to the next.

Show your societal value. We do the most important job. We live in a time where the quantity of information available increases every second. With each passing moment the world faces another tide of information and only one sector of society can help to ride that wave and not drown.

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There has been a great deal of talk about the current government’s pledge to commit 7.4m towards wifi in public libraries and the campaign for digital literacy. We all know why this is so important. Those who are digitally literate have greater personal freedom and earn more.
People with good ICT skills earn between 3% – 10% more than those without.
72% of employers would not even interview entry level candidates with no ICT skills.

Who is at the cutting edge of this digital literacy revolution?
We are.
Our sector.
We are the only ones in the right place to provide management of that knowledge in all its forms and to help people to access and organise it. We are all that stands between the population and fifty million hits on videos of cats riding vacuum cleaners. We are the information conduits, we are the managers of information and we need to make sure that people understand how important this is.

These are dangerous times for libraries, librarians and for anyone who works in knowledge management. This is the time to represent a unified front. This is the time to unite and speak as one to stop the rot that threatens to destroy our libraries. If this destruction is allowed to happen, there will be no going back. If public libraries fall then there is a genuine risk that other information service points will fall in their wake. If we lose access to the unique skills that only a librarian can offer we will become weaker as a nation because of it.

Stick together, build networks, cross services and make sure that people realise that this is not just about buildings and property assets, this is not just about wages or cutting costs for local government, this is about the professionals who provide a service that ultimately improves the quality of life for every single member of our 21st Century communities.
This is what truly makes a library – a librarian.
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The harsh truth about volunteers.

Please note – blog posts automatically close after 50 days.

As always I am pleased to read of any county that announces that they have “saved” their libraries, but I am increasingly seeing that this act of supposed salvation comes at a cost. That cost is losing trained and professional staff, i.e librarians.
Many County Councils are now announcing that their libraries will be “saved”
and that thanks to their glorious new restructuring it will instead be run by “skilled volunteers”
Hmmm, let’s have a look at the truth and workability of that statement shall we?

I’ve worked in the service a long time and (because I’ve worked my way up) I’ve seen pretty much every aspect of it. I’ve worked as a volunteer, and I’ve worked with them, and I’ve organised them. The truth about volunteers is a harsh one, and I apologise to any volunteers if they know that this is not them, but in my experience the points below show the truth of what happens when you rely on volunteers in the long term.
Fine (and incredibly helpful) to use them for occasional top-ups (for example during the hugely busy Summer Reading Scheme season) or for supporting outreach services, such as book deliveries for the housebound or for care homes, but not for core or essential services.
Apart from the obvious denigration of the skills of trained professionals, why can’t we use volunteers for everything?
Here are a few reasons why….

You can’t timetable them.
Volunteers want to work at a time that suits them, not you and not the service. You can’t insist that they work late evenings and weekends like paid staff. They will only work at a time that is convenient for them. Of course they do, they are volunteers and have no contract of employment with you so why should they work when you want them to work?

They cancel at a moment’s notice
That’s because they can. They are not being paid and so if the boiler man wants to come round, they cancel. Waiting on a delivery? Cancel. Daughter popped round for lunch? Cancel. Bit of a hangover? Cancel. Lovely sunny day so decided to have a day out instead? Cancel.
Of course they can do this, they aren’t being paid! You have no right to expect them to come in and no contract of employment to force them to so they have every right to ditch.

You have little or no recourse when they are bad at what they do.
I’ve worked with many volunteers and I remember a good number of ladies who were long term volunteers for the housebound. They were rude. No two ways about it, they were rude, controlling, aggressive and arrogant. We could do nothing at all about this because they were volunteers and without them several housebound people would have no contact with another living soul from one week to the next. We couldn’t sack these ladies or demand they modify their behaviour because we had no contract of employment with them (see the pattern beginning to emerge?)

You can’t insist that they undergo extensive training.
It takes a vast amount of training to deliver a successful library service at the frontline. You can’t insist that your well-meaning volunteer attend several dozen courses to be able to deliver that service because they are just volunteers and you have no legally binding contract of service with them.

You can’t insist on an apolitical standpoint.
Some volunteers may well have strong political leanings that will influence their responses and the way they deal with the public. You can not enforce an apolitical standpoint upon them because they are volunteers and you have no contract with them to ensure that they only express neutrality.

They are not protected in the event of injury or incident.
I have known a good number of librarians who have been injured during their work. This ranges from people who have put their backs out to people who were punched and one who was stabbed. These staff members were supported by their employers and were able to get well and were supported through various crises. You can’t do that with volunteers (no contract remember!) and so their only recourse will be to sue the county. Good luck with that!

They only do what they want to do.
Yes, shelving a couple of hundred books can be boring, so is heaving a load of deliveries around or doing an extensive weed or stock check – but it’s all part of the job. It’s much more enjoyable mooching around in the reference section, or looking through new books, or chatting with your friends who just happen to have dropped by. Library assistants on a contract can be instructed to do the dull stuff because they are paid to. People who have no pay and no contract don’t want to do the dull stuff – why would they? They start off agreeing to, but all too soon you are drowning in returns and the shelves are a mess with things put back incorrectly. In my experience it takes about three weeks for someone to get to the NAD method of shelving (Near As Dammit)

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Some volunteers will inevitably abuse their power. These will be the most reliable volunteers in terms of available time and they will make your libraries less pleasurable places to visit. They will be controlling and suffocating and will turn people off visiting the library. You can’t do anything about this because you have no contract of employment with them and can’t insist that they modify their behaviour.

They drift off.
In the beginning you will have lots of volunteers. Plenty of people will come forward and say that they will help out and for a while you will be overwhelmed by the lovely support your library has.
This will not last. In a year or two you will be left with a tiny core of people who are still devoted, but who are essentially running the library on their own. You will be completely reliant on the two or three people who remain loyal, and they will be working full-time equivalent hours in a desperate attempt to keep the place open. If there is one paid librarian left in the building to oversee this (and I stress the “if” there) they will be on a zero hours contract that occasionally affords them a day off, but otherwise requires them to work every late, and every anti-social day (such as Saturday and Sunday) due to the lack of available volunteers.
It will become virtually impossible to get more volunteers because in a more rural community you may have simply exhausted all available people, and in most areas people will tire of working that hard for free. Students will graduate and get jobs, and other people will find that it no longer fits with other aspects of their lives. Most will simply find it tiresome and demanding and they will gradually drift away. You can do nothing about this because they are volunteers and you have no contract with them over things like working hours, or the need to notify you a good time in advance that they no longer wish to do it.

They don’t really know what they are doing.
No offence intended to volunteers here, but the scale of work expected of them is a bit terrifying! Being a librarian is a hugely complex task that involves an incredibly broad skillset. I’ve been doing this for over a quarter of a century and I pedal hard to keep up with all the relevant changes that impact the library service and how we deliver that to our customers. I don’t have all the answers to enquiries from members of the public, but I sure as hell know where to find them. This is because I’m a professional – not a volunteer. You can’t expect volunteers to be able to do this. Customers will soon be frustrated by not being able to ask a question and receive the correct answer, and so they will simply stop asking, and will stop using the library. Catch 22.

This is just a very small snapshot of the potential barriers to delivering a quality service only using volunteers. I have had many wonderful and supportive volunteers in my time (and I thank them and they know who they are and I was able to do a better job thanks to them) but they operated with me, and ultimately the buck stopped with me – the paid and experienced professional. I am a strong willed person who was perfectly prepared to tell a volunteer that I no longer required their services, and so I was able to work with people who stuck at it and were superb – but that meant that I went from dozens down to three who were actually reliable and trustworthy – and that was in a school where I was lucky enough to have access to well-educated and involved parents.
When I was in public libraries it was a genuine nightmare keeping reliable and effective volunteers, and it was far worse for my colleagues who were in poorer or more rural locations.

We, as members of the public, deserve better. We deserve (and are legally entitled to) a library service that delivers not only books but is a free public access point to information. We deserve someone qualified in knowledge and information management who is best able to provide that service – and that’s a real librarian.
This is not just about saving jobs, it’s about communities receiving that which they are legally entitled to. If all of your health visitors or community pharmacies were run by volunteers you would not accept it – don’t accept it from your one and only community information point either. Don’t let the Powers That Be convince you that you can find out all the information you require on your own, that’s a fallacy. You can find out all the legal information that you need on the Internet – but at some point you will need a trained professional to help you. Imagine if it was accepted that solicitors could be unqualified volunteers too? Or nurses?
Yes, you can wrangle around on the Internet when you have a question about issues that affect you locally (or nationally) and then you can wade through 50,000+ pages of disorganised information hoping you’ll strike upon the right one. Or, you can visit the information and knowledge management specialist in your community (aka the librarian) and ask them and they’ll give you the right answer.
You can’t rely on a volunteer to do that. If you are tempted to volunteer, don’t. You will not be protecting your public library by volunteering, you will only be supporting a fatally flawed scheme that will eventually bring about its demise.

Running libraries on volunteers is not a cheap and effective way of saving your local library service, it is a carcinogenic scheme that will ultimately kill it.

Dawn Finch Library and Literacy Consultant
Children’s Author

Footnote – ALL OPINIONS ARE MY OWN.
IF YOU ARE UNDER A GAGGING ORDER AND WISH TO CONTACT ME IN CONFIDENCE, PLEASE USE THE CONTACT FORM ON www.dawnfinch.com

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